Sunday, July 28, 2013

The first three months

I first advertised this blog about three months ago.  I’ve gotten a lot of encouragement and feedback, and readership is growing.

Thanks a lot to everyone who’s visited or followed along.  While the blog’s main purpose is to help my friends and family understand what I do and participate in my experiences, everyone is welcome.  If you enjoy anything here please share the link with your friends.  If you have any questions or things you’d like to see on the site please let me know in the comments or an email.  I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog and connect more with my readers.

As a step in that direction I’ve added a page with an interactive map documenting some of the landscapes I’ve learned from.  Regular updates will allow my family to follow along as I explore.

My transition from Marine to scientist will be a slow one.  It’s been a good quarter.  I look forward to many more as I continue to work out my place in this world.

Thanks again.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Thanks, Apalachicola

Scientists should be grateful.

I have heard the complaint that researchers don’t often repay nature for their insights.  Scientists make discoveries about the natural world and their working material is nature itself.  Scientists ask questions, and some aspect of nature provides the answers.  Some pieces of nature are a bit more abstract than others—the number pi versus the element carbon, for example.  In the case of biologists, our material is often a specific place or organism.  By working in a place or studying a creature we gain insight into the workings of the world around us.

Biologists use organisms and places to learn about the universe

Every scientist can be grateful to the aspect of nature they study and by which they make a living.  I’m not sure how a mathematician can express that gratitude but in biology it’s fairly straightforward.  In my case I tend to thank landscapes, people and species, and I have ways to repay them.

Aaron and I studied for a month in Apalachicola National Forest

Natural areas of the Florida panhandle gave us free inspiration, experiences and data

My Florida field season is over.  Aaron and I asked some questions, and we hope that Apalachicola and the ants we studied have provided the answer.  Perhaps they haven’t.  At any rate, the forest, the people of Florida, and the many ants we disturbed, injured or killed, gave us some new experiences and a chance to learn something about the world.  Free of charge.  It’s a humbling gift and a lot to be grateful for.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

Dining room flight

When I say I research ant flight, many people are surprised.  After all, the ants we see most—the workers—don’t have wings.  But the queens and males of most species have wings and fly.  Some people still aren’t convinced with that answer.  So let me put the matter to rest.

Here in Tallahassee we’ve converted our temporary home into a lab, where we do flight experiments almost every day.  Our living room has a microscope table, and our kitchen and dining room are flight chambers.  We store our field equipment by the couch, and we prop our video camera on chairs.  We keep the live queens we collect in jars on our dining room table.  And we make them fly.

Over the past month Aaron, our physicist-cowboy, has gotten quite adept at lassoing queens and getting them to fly.  An arcane skill, to be sure, but a critical one.  So, for the doubters out there, I present to you a fire ant queen, flying in our very own dining room.  I mean flight chamber.

Our dining room is now a flight chamber where we watch red imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) fly for hours on end.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Death rattle

We live in nature, and observing it is easy.  But to experience any one event or creature involves luck—being in the right place at the right time.  The more places you go, and the more time you spend in each, the more experiences you have.

As a child I heard about the rabbit death rattle.  “Bunnies only scream once, when they die.”

I don’t know if that’s true, but I have twice heard a rabbit die.  Once was as an undergrad at Ohio State.  A red-tailed hawk swooped and killed an eastern cottontail in a campus garden.  Yes, the rabbit screamed.

The second was here in Apalachicola.  I stepped in a patch of undergrowth in a recently burnt pine savanna.  A juvenile eastern cottontail jumped from beneath my feet and ran about five meters… and screamed.  The rabbit had run into the waiting jaws of a Florida pine snake.  The two writhed in a coiling mass as the serpent constricted the rabbit to death.

Hidden beneath gallberry and greenbrier, a Florida pine snake (Pituophis melanoleucus mugitus) quickly caught and constricted the fleeing eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus)

It was an unlikely event—accidentally scaring a rabbit into a snake.  I was lucky to experience it.  Of course, it wouldn’t have happened had I not been there to flush it.

We live in nature, and we may always observe it.  But we also always interact.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Fungus on the Fourth

Happy Independence Day to my US friends!

Apalachicola is home to a particularly patriotic fungus, the barometer earthstar (Astraeus hygrometricus).  Its star-shaped fruiting body is surrounded by rays that respond to humidity.  On wet days the rays open up so falling raindrops or passing animals bump the puffball inside, shooting spores onto the moist ground.  When it’s dry they curl up and the fruiting body rolls along with the wind.

The rays of the barometer earthstar (Astraeus hygrometricus) open and close in response to humidity

The barometer earthstar is ectomycorrhizal—though its fruiting body grows on the surface, the fungus lives alongside pine roots, where it provides the tree with soil nutrients in exchange for carbohydrates.

Well-drained sandy soils and frequent rain mean constantly changing soil conditions for Apalachicola's residents

It rains often here, but the sandy soils dry quickly between rains.  The barometer earthstar’s ability to respond to changing humidity, and its relationship with pines, make it well suited for life in Apalachicola.